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    Tuesday, August 09, 2022

    Joe Mariani: the perfect summer baseball coach

    Waterford manager Joe Mariani receives the state runner up trophy on Saturday during the award ceremony after the Connecticut American Legion championship series against Danbury at Palmer Field in Middletown. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

    It was unfathomable back in Gentleman Joe’s formative days, the days when the American Legion state tournament was an event, that there would be two outs left in the championship game at Palmer Field, the normally humming home office for Connecticut amateur baseball, now mostly desolate.

    But then that’s the entire point of Gentleman Joe’s cachet. There he was Saturday afternoon with two outs left in his season, standing in the third base coach’s box amid the tumbleweeds, his team down five runs. And Gentleman Joe blows bubbles with his gum, continues to encourage his players and looks about as worried as a passenger on a yacht.

    His bon mots to the players always end with the word “babe.” As in: “Let’s go Connor babe!” “Here we go Kenny babe!” And hey, maybe when you were once a Navy pilot flying on and off aircraft carriers, some kid’s inability to negotiate a 3-2 slider doesn’t seem like such a travesty anymore. Perspective, babe.

    This is Gentleman Joe, otherwise known as Joe Mariani, the man who led Waterford – but really a compilation of kids from several local high schools – to the American Legion state finals last weekend.

    “Joe,” says infielder Evan McCue, the kid they call “Bones” (thus making him “Bones babe” to his coach) “is the best. The greatest guy of all time.”

    And Mariani may be emerging as the new coaching prototype for the changing culture of summer baseball. The best option among all the options. Why? He’s the coach who emphasizes fun, friendship and fraternity over more intense pay-to-play models that eschew those archaic concepts of town and team, consumed by the potential of tomorrow.

    “He does everything for us,” said McCue, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Hitter, headed to play next year at Keene State. “He's at the field every day, always supporting us, no matter what we’re going through. When it comes to summer leagues, some teams care more about the money aspect of stuff. Joe is here for us. Maybe with AAU, it’s about paying $1,000 to get a kid into college. With Joe, it’s 10 times easier. It's more fun.”

    Fun. Is that allowed anymore? You wonder. You wonder if summer baseball isn’t the same arms race as all the other sporting endeavors now, with private lessons, deluxe machinery, exit velos, travel teams and parents hunting scholarships with more verve than Tommy Lee Jones chasing Harrison Ford in “The Fugitive.”

    Then there’s Gentleman Joe, whose mellow mien gives the kids another option. After the bustling spring season, with the proms, the graduations and the finality of a school year, come here and enjoy the summer, playing a game with your friends. Every little mistake isn’t going to sink the Titanic. Learn from them. Learn about yourself. Then go have ice cream.

    “My philosophy is they’re young men. They know how to play the game. I will hold them accountable, but I'm not going to beat them up every pitch of every game,” Gentleman Joe said. “We’ll make adjustments and corrections as needed. I’ve found that it helps them blossom a lot more because they figure out what they can do and what they can't do. We guide them and teach them, but I found it's more powerful, instead of me telling them what to do.”

    It's here we recall the words of Wolf Kahn, a famous painter who got all Zen one day and said, “the best control is no control.” This is Gentleman Joe’s article of faith.

    “It’s fun here,” outfielder Connor Rowe said. “You’re coming from school, where’s it’s all about winning. I mean, obviously here it's about winning, too, but it's also about the fun of playing with my friends. This is the last time I’ll ever play with these guys. The last time I put ‘Waterford’ across my chest. I played in another league splitting time this summer and it was nothing like this.”

    It turns out that Waterford’s season isn’t over. Seems the Danbury team that won the state championship can’t field enough players to compete in the New England Regional.

    This is perhaps met with disdain. How could they? What about commitment? Legitimate questions. But for another day. For now? Nothing else could possibly illustrate the transient nature of The New Summer Baseball. How things have changed. All the options the kids have. What they prioritize. And maybe that’s why the best guy of them all to play for now is the guy once in the fray flying Navy jets, but somehow manages to stay above the fray better than everybody else.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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